StaTuesday: Vikings’ Hunter still has room to grow

General manager Rick Spielman has been a busy guy.

Just over two months after signing linebacker Eric Kendricks to a five-year extension, Spielman inked Danielle Hunter to a five-year deal worth $72 million last month, ensuring that a key piece of the Vikings’ front four will be wearing purple through the 2023 season. That’s in addition to a five-year deal for star receiver Stefon Diggs, reportedly inked Tuesday.

The scary part? Hunter hasn’t even reached his full potential.

Head coach Mike Zimmer is still tinkering with Hunter’s role in the defense, evident by the 23-year-old’s slight step backwards in his third season. After finishing third in the NFL in 2016 with 12.5 sacks – in a part-time role, nonetheless — expectations soared for the LSU product at training camp last season. The plan was for Hunter to take over Brian Robison’s starting role on the defensive line.

Starting all 16 games, Hunter’s playing time increased from 58 percent of the defensive snaps in 2016 to over 77 percent last fall. But his production went down, the result of gaining more attention and double teams from opponents and – even with these guns — fatigue as well.

YEAR SACKS TACKLES SNAP PCT
2015 6.0 25 36.5%
2016 12.5 32 58.0%
2017 7.0 27 77.6%

Knowing Zimmer, he’ll find that sweet spot in Hunter’s playing time and have the fourth-year pass rusher back to his 2016 ways. An upgrade next to Hunter on the line in defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson should help pad his stats – numbers that already rank high in franchise history.

Only one player in Vikings history has tallied more sacks in his first three NFL seasons: Kevin Williams, one half of the “Williams wall” that terrorized the NFC North for the better part of a decade.

PLAYER YEARS GAMES SACKS
Kevin Williams 2003-05 46 26.0
Danielle Hunter 2015-17 46 25.5
Keith Millard 1985-87 40 25.0
John Randle 1990-92 48 22.0
Al Noga 1988-90 41 17.5
Henry Thomas 1987-89 41 17.5
Chris Doleman 1985-87 34 14.5

But Hunter’s first three seasons have more significance outside of Minneapolis. Hunter, who turns 24 in October, is one of 10 players in league history to record 25 sacks before the age of 24 – and he’s the only player on that list to not be a first-round pick. Another note worth mentioning is every player on the list (besides Hunter) was named an All-Pro at least once. And one has a plaque in the Hall of Fame: Derrick Thomas, who ranks 16th all-time in NFL history with 126.5 career sacks.

PLAYER YEARS DRAFT SACKS
Shawne Merriman 2005-07 Round 1, pick 12 39.5
Robert Quinn 2011-13 Round 1, pick 14 34.5
Aldon Smith 2011-12 Round 1, pick 7 33.5
Terrell Suggs 2003-05 Round 1, pick 10 30.5
Mario Williams 2006-08 Round 1, pick 1 30.5
Von Miller 2011-12 Round 1, pick 2 30.0
Derrick Thomas 1989-90 Round 1, pick 4 30.0
Jason Pierre-Paul 2010-12 Round 1, pick 15 27.5
J.J. Watt 2011-12 Round 1, pick 11 26.0
Danielle Hunter 2015-17 Round 3, pick 24 25.5

When this five-year contract expires, Hunter will be 28 and ready to cash in on another big deal.

Just imagine his sack totals then.